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How Retained Primitives Could Affect Learning Disabilities

This article is part 6 of 10 in the column Simple Words

We are all born with primitive reflexes. Their presence is critical to the survival of the infant. They serve as the training wheels for the brain early on in the infancy and show that the infant’s nervous system is functioning normally. On the other hand, if primitive reflexes persist to exist long after the expected integration age, they may hinder the healthy development of the child.

Primitive reflexes are automatic muscle reactions in response to outside stimulation that are typical in a newborn and naturally integrate during the baby’s first year. Once successfully integrated, these reflexes are replaced by more mature postural reflexes which control balance, coordination, and sensory motor development.

However, if primitive reflexes are retained beyond the age they should normally disappear, they hinder the ability of a child’s brain to take off full speed. This could potentially cause developmental delays.

A variety of factors may cause retention of primitive reflexes, such as traumatic birth experience, atypical neurology (as in people with cerebral palsy), head trauma, or falls that could affect the brain. Some other factors are easy to overlook: birth by c-section, chronic ear infections, lack of tummy time, delayed or skipped milestones—crawling, for instance.

Although no scientific evidence based on current knowledge show that primitive reflexes play a role in disorders such as ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or learning disabilities, more scientists are investigating the potential relation between retained primitive reflexes and these disorders.

When my children were tested, to my surprise, they both showed many retained primitive reflexes at ages of 7 and 10. In an effort to help them, I tried a non-evidence-based approach. There are no guarantees that this may lead to improvement of any sort, but as I met families with amazing recovery stories and studied the science behind it, I began to believe the potential of this non-invasive approach. Realizing this may not be for everyone, I am sharing my experience with those who might be in search of alternative solutions just like I was.

The method to reduce retained primitive reflexes is doing a set of repeated and guided physical exercises daily. The exercises work to break the retained connection for the reflex in the brain and form new connections by repetitively performing the specific physical movements.

With daily exercises, my children initially experienced a lot of regression in behavior and attitude–mainly tantrums. However after about two to three months, they both showed some improvements:

  • Improved handwriting, reading, attention, impulse control, fine-motor skills (pencil grip, using utensils), hand-eye coordination, swimming, bicycling, core strength, and posture
  • Reduced sensory overload, moodiness, and motion sickness
  • Eliminated hair eating and sleeve sucking, reduced messy eating

We still have more work to do if we are to fully eliminate all retained reflexes. Unfortunately my children did not sustain all the gains once we stopped doing the daily exercises after 90 days, which makes me believe that we did not fully break the existing connections for all the reflexes.

Below is a list of primitive reflexes and Landau Reflex, which is not present at birth but typically emerges around the third month of life.


Cigdem Knebel

cknebelCigdem Knebel is the founder of Simple Words Books, a parent of a dyslexic child, and author of Sam Is Stuck, a chapter book for young dyslexics. She believes that all children love to read—they just need to find that right book for them.

Her mission is to help young dyslexics, and reluctant and early readers with fluency, comprehension and, most importantly, self-confidence. She accomplishes this by publishing fiction books, and reading and phonics practice resources with the skills of young dyslexics in mind.


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